Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1088
Tama Janowitz 1957-
American novelist, short story writer, journalist, and children's writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Janowitz's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 43.
Both reproached and lauded for her bold depictions of late twentieth-century American society, Janowitz is a best-selling novelist who also became a celebrity in the worlds of fashion, art, and advertising in the 1980s and early 1990s. At one time, Janowitz was the subject of tremendous media exposure due to her association with the New York City art scene, which centered around pop art guru Andy Warhol. Critics have also identified her as part of a “literary brat pack” that includes novelists Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and Douglas Coupland. Janowitz claims Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Vladimir Nabokov among her major influences, but her literary style encompasses a wide range of references; from the broad English farces of Evelyn Waugh to comic strips and the impact of television on modern culture. Janowitz specializes in making bold characterizations of mainstream pop culture and uses sharp satire to capture the “poses and pretentions” of the upper-class Manhattan art world.
Although a long-time resident of New York City, Janowitz was born in San Francisco, California; the daughter of Julian Frederick Janowitz, a psychiatrist, and Phyllis Winer, a poet and professor. Her childhood was marked by a liberal parenting style and her parents' divorce. Janowitz studied at several different institutions including Barnard College, Hollins College, Yale University School of Drama, and Columbia University. After college, she settled in New York and worked as a freelance journalist, a model, an assistant art director, and a writer-in-residence. Janowitz first began writing fiction during her college years. She completed American Dad (1981), her first published novel, several years after college while working in the New York fashion and art world. Her first critical success was Slaves of New York (1986), a collection of short stories which inspired an 1989 film by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (in which Janowitz also appeared). A Cannibal in Manhattan (1987), an earlier work, was released by Janowitz's publisher immediately following the success of Slaves of New York. Janowitz developed strong ties with the New York art scene, and especially with her close friend, Andy Warhol. Warhol's creative marketing approach and postmodern sensibilities were qualities that influenced Janowitz in her formative professional years. Employing Warhol's trademark technique of “visualization” (where an individual constantly imagines oneself as successful in order to achieve success), Janowitz boldly pursued her celebrity status as she participated in the decadent lifestyle embraced by many young affluent New Yorkers during the 1980s. In 1992, Janowitz married Tim Hunt, the curator of the Andy Warhol estate.
American Dad focuses on the life of a young man named Earl Przepasnick and his handling of his parents' divorce. Earl's relationships with his father, his psychiatrist, and his mother, are autobiographical in nature and reflective of several events in Janowitz's youth. Slaves of New York is a collection of twenty-two short stories inspired by Janowitz's experiences living in Manhattan and her relations to the New York City art world. Several of the stories center on a young jewelry maker named Eleanor and her artist boyfriend, Stash. Another prominent character is Marley Mantello, a self-assured painter who dreams of becoming a success. The stories exhibit an abundance of humor that helps mask a deep underlying darkness. This style is also prevalent in A Cannibal in Manhattan, whose main character, Mgungu Yabba Mgungu, is a young man brought to New York from a South Seas island by a wealthy socialite. Mgungu quickly encounters the barbarity of civilized life, and the novel, through its central metaphor, provides commentary on the culture of consumer capitalism. Janowitz exploits the Shakespearean conceit of “gender in disguise” in The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group (1992), which centers around Pamela Trowel (who sells advertising for Hunter's World magazine) and her befriending of a nine-year-old street urchin. Gender themes are also woven into By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee (1996), a story based on the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The novel focuses on Maud Slivenowicz, a nineteen-year-old who lives with her family in a trailer by the polluted shores of Lake Superior. Janowitz explores issues central to post-feminist thought through her portrayal of Maud and her sister, Marietta. Susan Bolotin referred to the novel as “a picaresque satire of twentieth-century America.” Janowitz returned to her usual New York setting in her 1999 novel, A Certain Age. The city's social climbers and their cocktail-party circuit are again reexamined, this time with the focus on an unmarried woman in her thirties and her ruthless quest for a wealthy, well-connected husband. In April 2001, Janowitz collaborated with illustrator Tracy Dockray on the children's book, Hear That?, which centers around a mother playing a listening game with her young son.
Although her first novel, American Dad, was widely ignored by critics, Janowitz's second work, Slaves of New York, became an international best-seller that immediately thrust her into the media spotlight. Readers were drawn to her dark sense of humor and her vivid, engaging descriptions of the ethics behind New York's avant-garde art scene. Critics, however, did not respond so favorably as the general public. Although some reviewers praised her bold prose style (Alice H. G. Phillips said that Janowitz “observes everything with a sharp eye but with a New York bohemian's true affection for her world”), many critics took issue with Janowitz's tendency to stress style over substance. They criticized Janowitz for her exhaustive descriptions of pop culture minutiae and for her thinly-veiled allusions to high-society gossip. Raymond Sokolov called Slaves a “slovenly collection” with “restlessly indistinct” prose, labelling Janowitz “a writer for nonreaders.” Slaves of New York has endured as Janowitz's best reviewed work, although her follow-up novels have remained popular with readers across the country. When asked in an Esquire interview how she felt about the negative critical response to her work, Janowitz commented: “My feelings are hurt … and you feel like, oh how could you say this, but it doesn't bother me that much because what can you do, you're writing the best book you can. And the other side of me feels glad that they trashed it because mostly the books that I don't like are the ones getting the lovely reviews.” Hailed as a “marketing artist” by the New York Times, Janowitz is a writer whose fiction has drawn close scrutiny, and whose work has been hailed as a vivid and telling rendition of American postmodern urban life.